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Geoff Johnson: Hard facts about the value of 'soft' skills

Skills such as social perceptiveness are increasingly valued in the workplace
Soft skills are valuable in nearly any job, but especially in leadership jobs, since they’re the foundation for working with others, sharing information, and remaining organized, writes Geoff Johnson. PHIL WHITEHOUSE VIA CREATIVE COMMONS

The B.C. Labour Market Outlook for 2021 to 2023 lists active listening, speaking, critical thinking and reading comprehension as the top skills of the future.

But social perceptiveness, judgment and decision-making were also deemed as important skills for most job applicants, especially for leadership positions.

Some of these skills, like decision-making ability and critical thinking, are not surprising, but others, like social perceptiveness and monitoring, are not as common in leadership and employee interview checklists and are regarded as “soft skills.”

The movement toward employers valuing “soft skills” is reflected in the Conference Board of Canada’s Employability Skills 2000+, which includes, along with science, technology and mathematics skills, communication, problem solving, positive attitudes and behaviours, adaptability and working with others.

But as Dr. Jo-Anne Clarke, dean of continuing studies at the University of Victoria, asks in a 2022 article in B.C. Business magazine: “How many job advertisements list ‘ability to tune into the feelings of others’ as requirements?”

“Not many,” she says, “but it’s a vital leadership skill. There’s a well-known saying that ‘people don’t leave bad jobs; they leave bad bosses.’ ”

No doubt that’s why UVic, as part of its continuing studies program, recently launched a new micro-credential course called Essential Soft Skills Training, which Clarke sometimes describes as the “greatest hits of people skills,” because it equips learners with foundational knowledge and tools required when moving into leadership roles.

In the same B.C. Business article, Clarke explains that dividing competencies into hard and soft skills can be limiting because the lines are blurring, saying: “Future leaders need educational programs that take a more integrated approach to skills development, which is why we embed both into our curriculum design.”

Academics and business people who were surveyed agreed that “soft skills” describes non-technical abilities that depend on traits such as emotional intelligence, values and work ethic. While people can improve their soft skills through learning and practice, these talents are largely seen to depend on candidates’ innate dispositions and pre-established beliefs about accountability and respect.

This raises the obvious question as to whether a “soft skills” leadership or employee style is a personality trait, or whether it can be taught and learned.

In the B.C. Business article, Clarke addresses the question head-on, saying: “As an educator, I lean towards the notion that people can learn and develop leadership competencies.”

“Every new situation you encounter is an opportunity to act, reflect and learn.”

According to employee finder and placement websites like, most organizations value professionals with strong soft skills because they integrate well into teams, collaborate successfully, and usually make work environments more positive and motivational.

Soft skills are valuable in nearly any job, but especially in leadership jobs, since they’re the foundation for working with others, sharing information, and remaining organized. They can also have an impact on the value of a candidate’s hard academic or technical skills, because they affect how well someone can contribute ideas and overcome challenges.

The most commonly agreed on “soft skill” is communication abilities, whether verbal, non-verbal or written. Effective communication is the basis for all interactions between colleagues.

Also high up on most lists are adaptability skills — the ability to adjust to new circumstances and react to changes positively.

Teamwork skills are regarded as essential, not only for maximizing productivity but also for creating and maintaining co-operative relationships, and managing disagreements and conflicts.

Other “soft skills” valued by both employers and employees include creativity skills — thinking of new ideas and exploring unconventional possibilities.

But no list of desirable “soft skills” that I have seen or, for that matter, experienced, excludes a hard/soft skill like time-management.

While time management is a part of work ethic, it also involves how well an individual is able to stay on task, complete duties on time, work efficiently, and more.

Time-management skills are sometimes referred to as a “hard skill” that includes rigorous adherence to allocation of time to tasks, and in other contexts as a “soft skill” that includes prioritizing and self-starting.

That raises the question, both for leaders and employees, of how to balance the importance of other “hard” and “soft” skills. For example, in some analyses of soft skills, assertiveness is considered a hard skill.

A New York Times portrait of former General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt addresses the question, rejecting a false dichotomy between hard and soft skills.

Great leaders like Immelt, the piece argues, “need to be able to do really hard things — change a strategic direction, sell a long-valued division, lay off employees — with… a deft touch.”

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Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.